Monday, June 30, 2014
Forever (Unfairly) Known As A Screw-Up
Photo: My Fred Merkle T206 Card
Have you ever noticed that some very nice people are known for the very one worst thing they ever did?
Even an action that in the great scheme of things--like a baseball game--are not that big a deal?
Are you one of these people?
Fred Merkle was. This one-second event would stay with him the rest of his life. And it gave him his nickname, that even now you can see on his baseball-reference.com page: Bonehead.
The incident even has its own Wikipedia page, as does Merkle himself. (And most of his page covers the play.) The play is infamously called "Merkle's Boner." (Before you giggle, I should note: The definition of the second word: "Mistake.")
From Merkle's Wikipedia page:
On September 23, 1908, while playing for the New York Giants in a game against the Chicago Cubs, while he was 19 years old (the youngest player in the National League), Merkle committed a baserunning error that became known as "Merkle's Boner" and earned him the nickname "Bonehead."
In the bottom of the 9th inning, Merkle came to bat with two outs, and the score tied 1–1. At the time, Moose McCormick was on first base. Merkle singled and McCormick advanced to third. Al Bridwell, the next batter, followed with a single of his own. McCormick trotted to home plate, apparently scoring the winning run. The fans in attendance, under the impression that the game was over, ran onto the field to celebrate.
Meanwhile, Merkle ran to the Giants' clubhouse without touching second base. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed this, and after retrieving a ball and touching second base he appealed to umpire Hank O'Day, who would later manage the Cubs, to call Merkle out. Since Merkle had not touched the base, the umpire called him out on a force play, meaning that McCormick's run did not count.
The run was therefore nullified, the Giants' victory erased, and the score of the game remained tied. Unfortunately, the thousands of fans on the field (as well as the growing darkness in the days before large electric light rigs made night games possible) prevented resumption of the game, and the game was declared a tie. The Giants and the Cubs ended the season tied for first place and had a rematch at the Polo Grounds, on October 8. The Cubs won this makeup game, 4–2, and thus the National League pennant.
From the incident's Wikipedia page:
The play was immediately controversial. Newspapers told different stories of who had gotten the ball to Evers and how. Christy Mathewson, however, who was coaching first base for the Giants, acknowledged in an affidavit that Merkle never made it to second. One newspaper claimed that Cub players physically restrained Merkle from advancing to second. Retelling the story in 1944, Evers insisted that after McGinnity (who was not playing in the game) had thrown the ball away, Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh (who also was not in the game) retrieved it from a fan and threw it to shortstop Tinker, who threw it to Evers. (By rule, after a fan or a player who was not in the game touched the ball, it should have been ruled dead.) A contemporary account from the Chicago Tribune supports this version. However, eight years prior to that, Evers claimed to have gotten the ball directly from Hofman. Five years after the play, Merkle admitted that he had left the field without touching second, but only after umpire Emslie assured them that they had won the game. In 1914 O'Day said that Evers' tag was irrelevant: he had called the third out after McGinnity interfered with the throw from center field. Future Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem said Merkle's Boner was "the rottenest decision in the history of baseball"; Klem believed that the force rule was meant to apply to infield hits, not balls hit to the outfield.
And so there you have it. A man who played in five (!) World Series (that's a lot for 1900-1920, before Babe Ruth's Murderer's Row teams and the beginning of the Yankees dynasty; in fact, the Yankees--or the Highlanders, as they were also called--were often a last-place team in those years), who finished in the top-10 in the league in homers four times and in RBIs five times, will forever be known as the guy who didn't touch second base (as most baserunners didn't when the game-winning run scored) and cost his team the pennant. Though, even if it's not said on Wikipedia, the truth is that his team lost to a rookie pitcher at least four times in the last two weeks. (This I remember from The Glory of Their Times.) A win in any one of those games--or in any other that they lost after this particular game--would've given them the pennant.
As Bill Buckner wasn't solely responsible for Boston's 1986 World Series collapse--sorry to bring it up, but the comparison's too obvious--so too was Merkle not solely responsible here.
And he was never known for anything else.
Not even for those five World Series appearances with a few different teams.
All five which he, of course, lost.
No one, it is said, is the best thing--or the worst thing--he's ever done.
Even if it is all he's remembered for.